The Moment I Knew I Had to Talk to My Kids About Race

Days after Michael Brown was shot and killed I stood on my front porch staring at the street in front of my house. I was pushing my then 6 month old son in a swing and watching my two year old son and four year old daughter run around in the front yard. I was nauseous thinking about Michael Brown’s body on the pavement and the hours that he lay still in the street. I was nauseous knowing that that wouldn’t happen to my white boys. I knew that someone like me would never be held back by law enforcement from my wounded child, as Michael Brown’s mother was. I couldn’t pretend it was a normal day. I couldn’t pretend I was fine...or that this was fine.

It was then that I first knew that I had to talk to my kids about race. Actually it was really then that I fully confronted the truth that I HADN’T yet talked to my kids about race.

It wasn’t that I had planned NOT to talk to my kids; I just felt like it hadn’t come up. I know how foolish that is. But in some ways, that’s to be expected. After all, I live in a very segregated town in one of the most segregated regions in the country. Talking about race as a white person in the midst of extreme segregation requires intentionality. Not only am I culturally conditioned and socialized to not talk about race, but also I live in a place where my children and I rarely encounter people who don’t look like us.

The kicker is that I already knew that I wasn’t unscathed by the racism I encountered in St. Louis. Since moving here I was uncomfortable by the starkness of the segregation and racially coded messages about race and difference that I had grown accustomed to hearing. I was already bothered by the sea of sameness that I was raising my children in. I was already reading a lot about the racial disparities of our city and the importance of understanding my own whiteness. I had already spent a decade and half exploring my own racial identity development!

But I never shared any of my thinking with my children. I hadn’t indicated to them in ANY way that anti-racism was important to me. I hadn’t  told my kids that some people are treated unfairly because of their skin color. I hadn’t talked about civil rights, past or present, or our country’s legacy of slavery. I hadn’t even told my kids that they were white. Instead I had allowed them to think that they and this way we lived was just “normal” and even acceptable.

But it’s not. And I couldn’t pretend that it was any longer.

That was the day that things changed for my family. I didn’t plan for it or know how to start. It just began to trickle out. I started by  acknowledging that I wasn’t ok and that they way we lived weren’t ok. I shared with my daughter that something very upsetting had happened and that I was thinking about it. I mumbled and fumbled my way through that upsetting thing happening to someone because of their skin color and that the same thing probably wouldn’t happen to us. I was unsure. I was inarticulate. I was worried. In truth I was most worried about myself and my discomfort. I was worried about letting some genie out of the bottle and now being faced with lots of questions I couldn’t answer. In reality I was faced with lots of questions I couldn’t answer. And I’m better for it.

That trickle of honesty didn’t become a wildfire but it did become a small spark. We turned to books. Lots of them. We revisited the bumps and uncertainties I hit in conversations. I tried. And then tried again. Early on, we read the story Loving about the family in the case Loving v. Virginia. To my surprise my daughter immediately named all the interracial families at her school. She had already noticed. But didn’t have the language or the context to talk about what she could so plainly see.

It’s been more than three years. And hundreds of books and conversations later, our family is really different. The 6 month old is now 4 and comfortably describes his and others’ shades of skin tone. He will tell you that his favorite Star Wars character is “Finn with the dark, dark skin.” When my daughter lost her first tooth, she drew a picture of her tooth fairy, who had brown skin. Last Christmas, her Santa Claus had brown skin too. As a child I’m pretty sure my imagination only contained people who looked like me. Hers doesn’t. My 6 year old son has grappled with the fact that safety isn’t the same for all people. Different people are at risk in different ways. As white people we have a special responsibility to consider our impact on others.

The “that was then but things are better know” myth that I learned is unknown to them. They know our schools, neighborhoods, and region as a whole contains injustice. They know that the struggle for equity is real and alive. They know it’s not just an issue for people of color; it’s relevant to them. They know that persistent racism and injustice is why we have particular conversations, read certain books, go to certain events, notice out loud what we are seeing, talk about the news, march, protest, create signs, follow mom to meetings at night, and find 30 people crowded into our living room on certain nights sharing stories and asking questions. They know I yearn for a more equitable community and region. They know I wish I lived in a place that was not just diverse, but  good for all people. They know that we, as white people, have a role in both the problem and the solution.

What’s truly amazing is that they know we are not alone. At a different time and a different place these views and perspectives might make us isolated or even ostracized. Three years ago this went to the heart of my self-focused concerns. But we live in St. Louis in 2018. Everyone knows that something is happening here. Since beginning our journey my family’s community is significantly more diverse, AND ALSO my children are surrounded by white families who publicly prioritize anti-racism: white families committed to change, self-reflection, and challenging themselves to do more. These are families we see in the hallway at school, at the grocery store, at cultural events, and at meetings. Theirs are the children that lend us books, also talk about racism, and who lean over and whisper “not true” during class to my daughter in the midst of a wholly inaccurate lesson about Thanksgiving. This has become my children’s normal. Same place. Same legacy. Same heartbreaking challenges as in 2014. But the power of public commitment and coordinated community has changed not only perception of what is, but what’s possible.

That’s why We Stories matters. Not because We Stories is bringing about change alone. Not because white people are leading the way. Not because reading diverse books is a new idea or the salve for everything. But because real change can’t come if those most advantaged stay isolated and unaffected. Full transformation is only possible when we realize how damaging this segregation and disparity is for us all. And in order to strengthen the political will for change, we must keep numbers, in strength, in coordination, in understanding, and in commitment.

Join us in the push for the possible.

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